Interview. Chris Nicholson – skipper of Team Vestas Wind

Chris Nicholson pic by Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

Chris Nicholson
pic by Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

vestas from top of mast

Team Vestas Wind
pic by Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

Interview

Richard Crockett chatted to Chris Nicholson – skipper of Team Vestas Wind

You are remembered fondly by South African sailors for your 505 victory in 1994 off Durban – does that win still stand out as one of your memorable sailing achievements?
Absolutely. But probably for different reasons than what people think. It’s obviously special to win a world championship, but to win them in countries you enjoy being in, and South Africa was very special, was awesome. At the age I was and with everything that was going on politically, I was kind of mesmerised by South Africa, and Durban, and I enjoyed my time and every part of that regatta. So that is one reason why it is so special.

I was actually in Durban the other day as I went on a safari. I was having a lot of fond memories of when I was there – it was such a good time.

Did starting your campaign late for the Volvo Ocean race affect you negatively on this first leg?
Yes for sure -absolutely no doubt. We are still trying to work on our sail combinations so we made several mistakes during the race with the wrong sail combinations. It’s also critical how you trim those sails and steer the boat so we are very much on a steep learning curve. I think we are now closer to the guys and for sure we are getting closer to them than we were at the start in Alicante. But we are still not there yet and we still have a way to go.

You were right at the front of the fleet at times and then in about the last week you seemed to fall off the back of the bus – was that purely because of your lack of experience in the boat or did you have some damage?
It was a combination of all the things. We had the wrong sail combination once or twice and we lost some miles, and then possibly we were sailing the boat a little slower, and as soon as you lose miles you start to fall off the back of the front, which is what was happening, then you start to lose a lot of miles. The common saying “the rich gets richer” was very true here as there was a lot of that towards the end of the leg and this made us look worse than what we actually were. For sure it was a combination of all those things you said.

Fourth spot. Was this a position you were hoping for?
I had my fingers crossed and praying for a third, although a fourth is still quite all right. Obviously we would like to win, but seriously when I look at the other boats and the amount of miles and the type of people on board, I think the fourth was a great result for us.

Do you have any crew changes planned for this next leg?
No. Not at all.

You are obviously happy with your crew then?
Absolutely, and even if I was having troubles, it is still early days. I prefer to try and work through the problems than do wholesale changes. We are still a new team and learning as such, so, I would prefer to learn and improve together.

The one design route and the Volvo 65 as a boat – is this the future of the race?
I think it should be whilst the economic climate dictates. I love the one design. But you know I love the Volvo 70 in terms of how customised it was, and the design process and the build process – they are such cool boats.

But the reality is you can’t sell that at the moment to a sponsor, it is just too difficult to justify that amount of money and it would be such high risk for a sponsor, especially if you have picked the wrong designer or if you have picked the wrong sail programme or you have built at the wrong place. You just cant afford one little mistake.

Now we get given a grand prix boat and its all the same, and it is actually fairly easy to get up on your feet and get going.

Are the boats equal in your view?
I think they are supplied to us equal. But then there is clearly a bit of scope to tune your boat as such. But for sure, keeping the boats even is one area that I would like to stay on top of.

It there anything about the boat or the sail plan that you would like to see possibly changed?
You have to remember that I came from a Volvo 70 in the last race where if there was one tiny item out of place you changed it and fixed it. So if you go in with that attitude then you change a lot of things to suit your own personal needs, but as far as keeping your boat even and within the fleet and within the rules, there is hardly anything I would change at the moment. The boat is going well and everyone has made it to Cape Town in one piece. This is possibly the first time for as long as I can remember that the whole fleet has arrived here without major damage – so I think it is all pretty good.

Twelve minutes between the top two boats at the finish – is that something likely to be even closer in future legs?
Yeah – absolutely. I think this could end up being one of the wonder breaks to be honest with you. The time back to third and fourth and fifth are, I think, the biggest gaps we might see this race because it was really such a tricky leg tactically.

The girls boat had some good and bad times and they also had some extra crew which is obviously necessary. Do you think they had enough muscle power or do you think they might have been not strong enough at times?
Honestly, I have looked at that rule for quite a while and I think it is pretty well balanced. I don’t think they are at a disadvantage at all. I think it is possibly at times more slanted to be advantageous for them as there will be some reaching legs where you need righting moment, and they just have more righting moment than us.

So what you are saying is that there is a chance that they could pull a surprise at some point and do well on some leg?
I absolutely expect them to as they are the most coached, the most well funded stable programme, and you saw what they could do by leading the way out of Gibraltar. There is absolutely no reason why they wont feature higher.

Your expectations overall?
Personally I want to win the race, of that there is no doubt. Fourth has gone a reasonable way, in fact a long way, to give us a chance to win. That was what I wanted out of the first three legs – stable enough results to give us a chance later on to with the race. But we were never going to be able to win the race from these first three legs – if for some reason we had a miracle and won a couple of legs then we would become a front runner, but at the moment all I am trying to do is just survive long enough with reasonable results until we catch up to everyone – and that may not be for a leg or two yet.

On this next leg are there any major challenges ahead?
Yes plenty. We do a doldrums crossing that really none of us are familiar with and there is very little historical data on, so that will be quite tricky. There is so much of this leg I have never sailed before and most crews are quite inexperienced in regards to this area of the world. Abu Dhabi has obviously got quite a bit of knowledge of the top area around the straits, but yeah it will be a very challenging and long difficult leg – that’s for sure.

Chris, do you have another race in you?
Physically absolutely. I only ever plan race-by race. I don’t find these races easy to do at all, so the only way I can do them is when I am highly motivated. If I am still in that state at the end of this race like I was at the end of the last race, then absolutely.